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Self-censorship and its Implications

NIAS fellows discussed their shared concerns on the increasing role of self-censorship in academic and other published work. Below, we share some of the insights that stood out during the discussion.

Each year at NIAS, common themes and shared concerns pop up during the many informal and weekly encounters between fellows. Despite the wide range of disciplines, and the variety of their backgrounds, some of these themes turn out to capture them all. After the opening event on 8 September 2021, which dealt with academic freedom, it came to the fore that many of the NIAS fellows are dealing with direct or indirect threats in regards to their research topic or their position as a researcher. In many cases, these threats have led to forms of self-censorship by the scholars, writers, and journalists who temporarily reside at the Institute.

On 23 September, NIAS organised an internal discussion seminar to flesh out the reasons behind self-censorship, and to collectively reflect on its implications and possible solutions to this problem. What followed was an afternoon of vulnerability, open debate and shared concerns about the state of academic freedom in the post-truth era around the globe.

Fear of Repercussions

Fellows from various countries indicated to have undergone threats from religious, ideological or political movements, which made them (slightly) adjust, and sometimes even change their research topic.

In a similar vein, fellows confided that they feared losing funding or a research position due to the neoliberal character of universities. The highly competitive and individualized character of the work field has influenced and guided their choices and research topics. Furthermore, with universities referring to themselves as ‘enterprises’ and to students as ‘consumers’, career-mindedness has taken prevalence over curiosity. Student evaluations seem to matter more than anything, which influences what and how scholars run their courses. This not only causes a threat to the quality of academic teaching and learning, but also to the existence of small fields of study. In such a neo-liberal environment, it becomes increasingly difficult to find students and scholars who ‘dare’ to choose for a career in a marginalized field. Moreover, given the competitive and individualized atmosphere, it is hard to speak up and call for collective action.

Other examples of self-censorship, due to the fear of repercussions, are the lectures-on-demand that have become prevalent at universities during the pandemic. With sessions being recorded, lecturers find themselves in a vulnerable situation in which their words and teachings can be made public, taken out of context or be used against them. In addition, within the scientific community itself, methodological battles are fiercely fought. Many fellows pointed out how  frightening it can be to be confronted with public criticism by students, colleagues, or other work-related networks on social media.

From self-censorship to self-constraint

While self-censorship – stemming from the fear for negative consequences – was univocally  seen by fellows as a perverse outcome of neo-liberalism, polarisation and the post-truth movement, another type of constraint was addressed as a possible solution to create a safer and more collaborative working environment.  On the one hand, fellows deemed it important to point out the external forces that cause one’s self-censorship, on the other hand, they felt it is also important to reflect on one’s own role and position, and on how this might be experienced as a threat by others. Sometimes it is valid to constrain oneself from pursuing a certain research topic, from raising one’s voice or writing an article on a certain theme, when in all sincerity the answer to questions such as  “Is this my story to tell?” or “Am I the right person to address this issue?” is “no”.

Following from insights of studies on power and oppression, an important outcome of the session was that every researcher, writer or journalist should take the responsibility to reflect on one’s own positionality in order to become aware of the negative impact oneself might have on others; for example on those who find themselves in a (more) marginalised or vulnerable position, those who use different methodological or theoretical approaches or even start from opposite basic premises. Instead of fostering fear in the workplace, we should all contribute to more congenial collaboration in the workplace in order to carry out good science and improve the quality of academic learning.

Hence, while it could be seen as a form of self-censorship, many felt some degree of self-constraint and politeness towards others needs to be encouraged. Create space for others and don’t let yourself be guided too much by fear for repercussions, the general conclusion of the discussion turned out to be. The world needs brave, but sensitive researchers, who can find constructive ways to deal with something as destructive and paralyzing as self-censorship.